While he sometimes dismissed his youthful works, Barber retained a special affection for Dover Beach
Op 3; nearly fifty years after he first composed it, he remarked on the maturity of his setting of Matthew Arnold’s text and the timelessness of the poem, saying that the emotions evoked by both words and music seemed contemporary. Clearly the exalted pessimism of Arnold’s vision struck a resonant chord with Barber. The poem depicts human misery as grounded in the loss of religious faith, isolating each human being from his or her fellows. The sea’s ebb-tide, as seen from the beach, is the controlling metaphor: it stands for the retreating ‘sea of faith’ in whose place mere Nature can offer no comfort, only a confirmation of the human predicament. Barber’s setting begins as an atmospheric evocation of the calm sea seen at night in an austere D minor. But the pitiless processes of the tides causes the emotion to darken, and the music responds with denser, more painful harmonies. The central move to a hymn-like D major brings no relaxation; the timbres of the string quartet create a strongly plangent emotional effect, most of all at the tragic return to D minor and the climactic appeal ‘Ah, love, let us be true / To one another!’. The reprise of the opening music at the end is a daring stroke—Arnold’s ‘ignorant armies [that] clash by night’ would seem to demand more violent expression, but Barber stresses the indifference of nature in the face of human doubt.
from notes by Calum MacDonald © 2007